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Trying to Cross the Road, but Kept from Reaching the Other Side

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

One of the advantages of the Chicago street grid is that it allows for mixed-use neighborhoods even if individual properties are not mixed-use.  You can see how this works in practice by looking at a typical quarter-mile square like the one on the northwest side bordered by Belmont, Cicero, Diversey, and Laramie below.  On the major streets there are almost exclusively commercial and business uses (zoned in blue and pink, respectively,) while the interior blocks are residential (the tan "RS-3" tag.)  Although not ideal, this still means that with the right mix of stores, a local resident's needs can be taken care of with a quarter-mile walk in any direction.

Belmont-Cicero-Diversy-Laramie Zoning.png

Image courtesy Chicago Zoning Map, http://maps.cityofchicago.org/website/zoning/


In practice though, the major streets are not commercial corridors which allow walkability.  Really, Chicago's street design encourages residents not to cross their nearest arterial, no matter how enticing the retail possibilities are on the other side.  The city's stance on arterials completely ignores the existence of the non-driving public in its official Street Design Standards [pdf, emphasis mine]:

"The arterial streets are intended to provide for the movement of large volumes of through traffic and commercial traffic for longer distances, while local streets are intended primarily for the provision of access to adjacent property."

You can see--and have probably felt--the results whenever you've come to an intersection where a local street meets an arterial.

First, in many instances there is only some sort of traffic control device at the intersection of two arterials.  In some neighborhoods there may be a 4-way stop sign or a light halfway between two arterials, but oftentimes drivers on the major street have a quarter-mile drag race between lights with only the design of the road to guide how fast they go.

Even when speed limits are posted, Chicago's streets--like many across the country--are designed to be "forgiving."  This means that the road width and other factors are set up so that no matter what the speed limit, cars can speed up to the road's higher "design speed"--usually at least 5-10 mph faster than the posted speed limit--without repercussions (read: crashes.)  As it is, since many of these arterials (especially diagonals like Milwaukee and Ogden) are labeled as 30 or 35 mph zones, it means pedestrians are competing with average traffic speeds closer to 40 mph.

Although the new crosswalk law should encourage drivers to be more vigilant in looking out for pedestrians, minimal stoplights/stop signs plus forgiving street design means that cars won't be physically able to stop, even if the driver identifies a pedestrian trying to cross the street in time.

Now, one of the good things about the way these arterial-local street intersections are designed is that they usually include 4 good ol' sodium vapor lights, one on each corner, and all aligned with the arterial's crosswalk.  But with the streetlamps over 30 feet in height, the light intensity at street level is not as great it could be.  Since most overpasses in the city are in the 12-15' height range, there would be no harm from a truck-access perspective in lowering the street lamps at the corner.  The only downside would be narrowing the light cone, but I believe increasing visibility where there may be pedestrians would be worth it.

Marine and Winona Bulbouts.jpg

Marine Drive & Winona Street bulbout, image courtesy Google Maps Streetview


Finally, the length a pedestrian has to walk to cross an arterial can be shortened, even if it remains a forgiving street without a stoplight or stop sign.  The answer lies in bulbouts, which have already been implemented in various places (see photo above.)  By pushing the edge of the sidewalk out near corners (also effectively keeping people from parking too close to the corner) it narrows the roadway where pedestrians need it most.  It also affords more sidewalk space to whatever business holds down the corner, increasing property values and thus property tax revenues.

So if we want to make it easier to answer the question "why'd the Chicagoan cross the arterial?" CDOT needs to recognize that throughput is not a measure of a well-designed street, especially when that street houses the only commercial activity in the area.  Chicago won't become livable overnight, but without re-writing its standards to recognize the existence of pedestrians, it never will be.

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